Challenging era of technology innovation

These days I often comment to my colleagues that I am glad that I am no longer involved in the daily challenges of product management. With the growing list of choices presented to product managers, it is very difficult to make the right decisions that lead to successful product portfolios for critical embedded computing. We now have hundreds of “standard” board form factors, multiple fabric interconnect protocols, an expanding list of general and application-specific processors, evolving memory technology, and many other options to consider in planning product road maps.

How does a product manager make decisions that will lead to successful products? These decisions are more important than ever because design cycle times do not appear to be getting shorter, and design resources are more scarce than ever. One wrong move and a complete design cycle is lost. In the embedded space where design-in cycles are very long, it can take three to five years to even figure out that you have made a mistake in product features.

Apparently long gone are the days when a product could be defined based on the inputs from many potential customers. This same product would then be sold to those and additional customers, creating a very high return on engineering resources. Today the products are generally customer specific, thus limiting the ability to grow the business through sales to a diverse customer base.

One trend that stands out in the critical embedded computing industry is for suppliers to align with a customer to develop a deployable product based on industry standards and custom modifications. This reduces the risks associated with return on investment, but it also restricts the ability to sell that same product as an open Commercial Off-the-Shelf product. In the best case, it can lead to additional business with a little bit of design tweaking that takes incremental work but improves the overall return on investment. Because it is hard to scale this method of product design, companies often have to grow their engineering resources significantly or they have to be very selective of customers that will remain faithful for the long term.

How does a product manager avoid this trap or at least minimize the impact of aligning too closely with a small pool of customers? The short answer: listen and learn. The long answer: staff a strong product marketing team that knows how to understand the true needs of target customers and can translate those needs into products that can address multiple customers and markets. A great product marketing manager knows how to listen to customers to understand their real problems. This manager can then record this information in a market requirements document that can lead to an engineering specification. A well informed product marketing manager can greatly increase the potential of defining products that realize success across the market.

With all the choices that have to be evaluated and weighed against each other, this is no easy task. One place to go for help is Pragmatic Marketing. They have developed the Pragmatic Marketing Framework (www.pragmaticmarketing.com/pragmatic-marketing-framework), which I have found to be very useful in making these critical product decisions. The first and most key part of their framework is “market problems.” By the Pragmatic Marketing description of this step, you should, “Discover problems in the market by interviewing customers, recent evaluators, and untapped, potential customers. Validate urgent problems to show their pervasiveness in the market.”

In my experience, this is very hard to do, but without a complete analysis of the market problems, you are wasting your time. Companies sometimes get lucky and stumble upon a pervasive problem and figure out a profitable solution to that problem, but it is often a “one pony” product. Sustaining a parade of successful products takes much more skill.

Many companies either ignore or pay little attention to this step. I recommend that this step gets the majority of a product marketing team’s attention. Teaming up with the engineering team can make this an even more rewarding step. Don’t simply send out management and sales teams to “gather” customer inputs. You must construct a structured method of gathering data that can be compared to other inputs and analyzed for patterns and inconsistencies. Go back if there are more questions that evolve as data is gathered and analyzed. Refine the questions that are asked. Use a trained team to ask the right questions in the right way and to collect the inputs without bias. A sales team often has its own motivations (read: quota) at stake and will only hear the answers that support their personal goals.

As you can tell, I am very passionate about this and would love to hear your comments or take your questions.

Good luck in this challenging era of technology innovation.